Philosophy and Rhetoric 33.1 (2000) 59-73
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Thomas Hobbes: Telling the Story of the Science of Politics
Science and storytelling
First, the traditional commonplaces: Science does not tell stories. Disciplines purporting to be sciences eschew their storytelling aspects in favor of axiomatic, deductive, demonstrative, or whatnot essentials of science. Those deeming the story itself essential give up (happily or less willingly) the label of science and locate themselves under other institutionalized labels such as Humanities. 1 Then there are the disciplines that wobble on the fence, desiring, for various reasons that are more readily analyzed by historical sociologists, the epithet of Science, yet not always achieving such recognition. Chief players in this game are history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and political science. And if my rendition of this conflict between pretensions and performance seem blatantly pejorative, let me rephrase it: their own practitioners--historians, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists--believe the issue of their scientific status a problem of no small import. It is, indeed, the question "Are we a science?" that figures in the most fundamental debates concerning the purpose, essence, and methodology of these disciplines.
By use of a case study, I will try to support a seemingly conciliatory thesis: social sciences are, by definition and therefore of necessity, on the fence. On one side of the fence lies Science, the monolithic framework that enslaves its method to a grand purpose--knowledge of reality. On the other lies Humanism, a far less easily defined area about which I would hesitate to use the word framework, but through which one meets a no-less-grandiose focus--knowledge of the human. Why then does it seem natural to foster storytelling on the humanistic side of the fence? Or, alternatively, one can ask about the "why not" of narrative in the sciences.
Narrative is storytelling; and stories are about heroes; and heroes conduct their actions in a place through a time. So these three building blocks-- [End Page 59] hero, time, and place--point to a pattern of knowledge that, it seems obvious, cannot, and definitely should not, belong to science in its idealized form. There is, of course, a stronger thesis deriving from the intricacies in (post?)modern discussions: that even the exact and natural sciences use narrative while still remaining sciences. This idea--that science does countenance narrative and, indeed, may even use it beneficially--thereby becomes forceful, since science, with its universalistic airs, pretends to ignore heroes in specific times and places.
What of the social sciences? Their claim to science is based on that same universalistic end coupled with an attempt to develop a methodology to fit that end. The rub lies in the subject matter of the social sciences, the human being and society. A strictly positivistic view of such subject matter, or even a generally scientific one, must abstract from any and all "humanistic" traits of the human being and society and objectively treat them on a par with any other "neutral" (some might say, even material) object of research. My weak thesis merely claims that such abstraction is inherently impossible and, furthermore, that an attempt at such abstraction waylays the ultimate end of these "sciences." 2 Yet, such a thesis must contribute more than it eliminates. If the social sciences cannot live up to the original scientific ideal of one side of the fence, and if their product can be valued as more than (or at least different from) a mere story on the other side, a more fruitful characterization than just "sitting on the fence" is called for. It is here that narrative makes its essential contribution: narrative is that pattern of knowledge which can encompass the social sciences, given their necessary turn to the human being. Looked at from the receiving end, the social sciences have no option but to turn to narrative in order to buttress their scientific ideal of explanation. The phenomena they claim to explain are human and social phenomena and, as such, cannot be distanced from narrative. 3
I shall try to illustrate my...